by Ryan Murphy
1. Starting goaltending.
Semyon Varlamov, despite playing behind a bottom-tier defense, has put up stellar numbers the past two seasons. At 27-years old, he’s in his prime and playing with the best defense the Avalanche have put on the ice during his tenure. The key for the Russian netminder will be health. Varlamov started a career high 63 games in 2013-14 and it’s no surprise the team had its best regular season record since the 2001 Stanley Cup squad. Colorado, very simply, needs him on the ice to be successful.
2. Depth at center.
Colorado may have parted ways with Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly in consecutive seasons, but the team is still loaded with talent down the middle. Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene are the marquee names -- both recent high draft picks and prolific scorers, they are the present and future of the team. Carl Soderberg was acquired from Boston this offseason to fill the void left by O’Reilly. A 44-point scorer playing on the Bruins’ third line, the 29-year old Swede will be asked to play against tough competition in the defensive zone. The pecking order after that is less clear, but no less intriguing. Mikhail Grigorenko, John Mitchell, Jesse Winchester, and Joey Hishon will all get looks centering bottom-six lines this season. More than one might be moved to wing to utilize their offensive talent.
3. Untapped potential.
The Avalanche core is still a very young team, with much of the primary core still under 24 years of age. The NHL has yet to see the best from already very good players like Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Tyson Barrie, and Nathan MacKinnon. We may also see players like Brandon Gormley, Nikita Zadorov, and Mikhail Grigorenko finally live up to their draft stock in a new playing environment. 2015 first-round draft pick Mikko Rantanen has also had an impressive training camp and preseason and could be ready for the NHL roster from Day 1. The 6’4 Finnish 18-year old could be an immediate upgrade at wing on a number of lines.
by Ryan Murphy
1. Backup goaltending.
When Semyon Varlamov struggled with injuries early last season, the Avalanche had no answer in their goaltending depth. Unlike 2013-14 when the now-retired Jean-Sebastian Giguere served as a more than capable backup, Reto Berra and inexperienced prospect Calvin Pickard had a difficult time keeping the Avs in games during the early going. An .899 save percentage between the two during this stretch resulted in Colorado stumbling to a 4-12 record out the gate, a deficit from which they would never quite recover. Pickard would eventually rebound by the end of the season, posting an impressive .932 save percentage, but the 22-year old is still very much a prospect at this juncture. The Avalanche need more from Berra than what they got last year.
2. Power play.
Few teams were as frustrating to watch 5-on-4 last season as the Avalanche. Scoring an anemic 36 power-play goals (down from 51 in 2013-14), Colorado was spared only by historically bad Buffalo from being worst in the league. The team simply couldn’t get set up in the offensive zone, and when they did, they weren’t getting shots on net. The Avalanche hope to remedy many of the mistakes with a revamped blue line, but many of the teams shortcomings were also systemic, and coach Patrick Roy aims to fix these going into the new season. If this team is to be successful, scorers like Matt Duchene cannot have just two goals on the power-play, and Nathan MacKinnon cannot have just three.
3. Bottom lines and pairings.
The Avalanche dragged around a considerable amount negatively contributing players on both offense and defense last season. Players like Marc-Andre Cliche, Cody McLeod, Brad Stuart, Nate Guenin, and Nick Holden all played significant minutes last year despite finishing near the bottom of nearly every measurable possession category. Coach Patrick Roy has big decisions to make as the roster deadline looms. Can he afford to keep around underperforming veterans, or will he go with inexperienced players with greater potential?
1. Will the key players stay healthy?
2. Can Nathan MacKinnon take that next step and become elite?
3. Is the defense improved with all the offseason changes?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Ryan Murphy
Coach Patrick Roy finally puts together the team he envisioned when accepting the job two seasons ago. The Colorado Avalanche are fast, physically imposing, and explosive offensively. Trade acquisitions Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Brandon Gormley not only make the team, but produce in increasingly prominent roles as the season progresses. Veteran additions Carl Soderberg, Francois Beauchemin, and Blake Comeau provide both playoff-tested experience and a level of play that allow Avalanche fans to forget all about the departed Ryan O’Reilly, Jamie McGinn, and Jan Hejda.
First-round draft pick Mikko Rantanen gives Colorado no choice but to keep him on the NHL roster and appears on more than a few Calder Trophy shortlists with his relentless two-way play. The team sees its first 30-goal scorer since 2006-07 when Nathan MacKinnon breaks out with 73 regular season points. Goalie Semyon Varlamov starts 65 games in net and maintains his stellar level of play behind a much-improved defense, earning a sizeable amount of Vezina Trophy votes but ultimately losing to a netminder who plays in the Eastern Time Zone.
The Avalanche, in a brutal Central Division, sneak into the playoffs with 101 points, beat their first-round opponent riding a wave of momentum, but lose a heartbreaking divisional series to a more experienced Chicago Blackhawks.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by Ryan Murphy
Semyon Varlamov deals with a litany of early season injuries, forcing the team to rely on underperforming backups out the gate. Jerome Iginla can hardly buy a goal until after November. Management stubbornly clings to low-possession veteran defensemen Brad Stuart, Nate Guenin, and Nick Holden in lieu of younger upgrades. Erik Johnson misses the second half of the season shortly after being selected to his first All-Star team.
Nathan MacKinnon records an almost comically low shooting percentage of 7.29 percent before missing the last eighteen games with a broken foot. The Avalanche, riding the talent of Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Tyson Barrie, finish with a respectable 90 points despite all the key injuries.
Oh, wait -- that’s a recap of last year?
Well, if Zadorov and Grigorenko don’t prove to be a worthy return for Ryan O’Reilly, then perhaps a lesser result is possible, but not likely below 85 points. This talented team shows signs of elite potential, but is ultimately too young and inexperienced to hang in a difficult conference and division.